Comdex Final Stop on Clinton's 'Digital Divide'

CHICAGO (04/19/2000) - President Clinton, making Spring Comdex the final leg of his Digital Divide New Markets tour yesterday, challenged high-tech companies to help bridge the gap between technology haves and have-nots.

Clinton has been trying to spur private-sector involvement in creating and funding programs that reach out to provide technology know-how, hardware and software to disadvantaged groups. The president said that more than 400 companies and organizations have signed up to get involved.

In the past four years, Congress has spent $5 billion to get public schools and libraries wired for Web access and to expand the number of available computers and software programs.

Below are excerpts from Clinton's speech at Comdex:

Information technology has accounted for about 30 percent of this remarkable economic growth we've had, even though people that directly work in IT only account for about 8 percent of employment. What we've tried to do in government is provide the conditions to give people the tools to make the most of this phenomenal new era of human affairs. What you, and people like you all across this country, have done, is to make the most of that.

And it's given us the longest economic expansion in history. The lowest African-American and Hispanic unemployment rates ever recorded; the lowest female unemployment rate recorded in 40 years; poverty down to a 20-year low; the lowest welfare roles in 30 years; the lowest overall unemployment in 30 years. That is the good news.

And it was brought about primarily by this incredible environment and the gifted people who have made the most of this celebration of ideas, innovation and ingenuity.

What I have been focused on in the last year plus of my term as president are the people and places who have been left behind in this phenomenal new economy.

And I have for two reasons: I think all of us would like to see every American who is willing to work for it have a chance to be a part of this astonishing new era of enterprise.

But secondly, I think it's in our economic interest to do it. ... It's clear if we want (economic growth), we have to do more to find new markets. New markets means creating new businesses, new employees, as well as new customers. And if you do both, you can have growth without inflation. So, this idea of closing the digital divide is good social policy, it's good personal ethics, but it's also very, very important for our continued economic expansion as a nation.

So, here's what I came to do. I want to ask the following things:

First of all, if you are not already a part of it, I hope all of the companies here from the largest to the smallest will support our national call to action, which I issued two weeks ago. Its basic goal (is) to provide 21st-century learning tools for every child and every school and to create digital opportunities for every family and every community. I've asked for business and schools and community groups involved here to enlist in the effort. More than 400 organizations have signed on in the first two weeks, and they are already doing amazing things.

I hope you will do more than sign a pledge. I hope you will commit to fulfillment. I want you all to ask if there is anything you are not doing that you could do to give our schools computers and high-speed connections, to design the educational software that our children need to succeed, to make sure our teachers are as comfortable in front of a computer as in front of a chalkboard.

Again, I say many companies are leading this effort today, but we need more.

The biggest problem in American education and the biggest problem in combating poverty through economic opportunity is not that there are no good ideas. Every problem in American education today has been solved by somebody somewhere. ...

The problem we have in America with social change is getting things to scale -- is reaching a critical mass of people. That's why I came here today. This is a critical mass of the IT community, and you need to reach a critical mass of the at-risk kids and the communities where economic and education opportunities are needed to close the digital divide.

The second thing that I want to ask you to do so that today's students can become tomorrow's success stories is to expand internships and to deepen your talent pool. I just received a survey that I read just the day before yesterday, indicating that even making allowances in differences in education, women and minorities are still comparatively underrepresented in most IT occupations. We can do a lot to close the digital divide just by equalizing the representation, once people do have the education and skills that they need.

The third thing that I would like to ask you to do is to recognize, as I said before, there is a limit to what the federal government can do. I intend to set up a framework and provide the necessary tools and generate as much activity as I can. But we need more partnerships at the local level - with the schools, with the local communities, the local community groups and the local government. I think you will find, if you are not involved in this kind of work, there is more interest in it than ever before and people are eager for help. If we work together, we can empower people with the tools and training they need to lift themselves out of poverty. If we work together, we can give people the ability to use new technology to start new business. If we work together, we can close the digital divide and open digital opportunities.

I'm asking you do this because you can. I'm asking you do this because it's right. And I'm asking you do this because America needs to have a continually growing economy. The productivity increases generated by information technology, in the IT companies themselves and then through application throughout the economy, is what has enabled us to continue to grow at 4 percent and keep inflation down.

I'm doing my best to open new markets around the world and to keep our markets open, which helps to keep inflation down and to grow, but the best opportunity we have is to get of all those out there who are dying to be part of what the rest of us take for granted.

I can't do it alone. The federal government can't do it alone. But if we all do it together, there is nothing we cannot do. America will never, ever, ever have a better chance, and therefore a more profound responsibility, to close the digital divide.

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